When I was in Seminary I took a class in Ecclesiology and at some point in the class I shared my thought that James was the “leader of the Jerusalem Church.” The professor looked at me rather strangely and dismissed my comment with “well, you have James all figured out, don’t you.” MA students are apparently not allowed to have those sorts radical of opinions, those sorts of thoughts are reserved for PhD students only.
Since that rather kind slap-down, I have had an interest in Jewish Christianity in Jerusalem in general, and James in particular. Part of this interest is the belief that my comment in that particular class was on target, although it was probably came across arrogant (I was like that back then). I am always pleased when I read things that more or less state that James was the leader in Jerusalem, such as James Dunn in Beginning in Jerusalem, especially chapter 36, although he says things like this throughout the book. As we have seen in our survey of Acts, the Twelve fade from the scene pretty quickly – James the Apostle is killed in Acts 12 and not replaced; Luke introduces James as a significant player in that same chapter. Peter sends a message to James the “goes elsewhere.” Peter drops out of site at that point in the narrative, except for a brief report at the Jerusalem council.
What is remarkable to me is that James appears as a leader at the level of Peter and Paul as early as 1 Corinthians. In 1 Cor 15:7 Paul passes along the tradition that he received concerning the resurrection. Only three names of individuals are included, Peter, James and Paul. These are the three men to whom the Lord appeared, and at least in Peter and Paul’s case, they are commissioned to a particular ministry.
James appears as a leader in Jerusalem quite early, a point that is often missed. Gal 1:19 describes Paul’s visit to Jerusalem after his conversion. He met with no one except Peter and James, the Lord’s brother. It is possible that James the apostle and James the Lord’s brother are confused in the later traditions, but there seems to be strong evidence that the family of Jesus did not believe he was the Messiah before the resurrection. Gal 1:19 therefore can be understood as saying that within three to four years after the resurrection James not only became a believer in Jesus as Messiah, but he had already risen to some sort of leadership position in Jerusalem.
What happened to James after Acts? According to Josephus, in A.D. 62 James was charged with breaking the Law. He was tried by the Sanhedrin and stoned to death. After Festus died, Albinus was appointed procurator. Ananus was High Priest at the time, and he arrested James after Festus’ death but before Abinus arrived in Caesarea. As a result, Agrippa deposed Ananus after only three months as High Priest. (Antiq. 20.197-203).
The story of James’ martyrdom appears in Heggesippus, although with considerable expansions. Because of his great reputation as a righteous man, James is given an opportunity to address the crowds at Passover in order to address the problem of Jesus as messiah. James is lead to the top of the temple stairs and proceeds to preach the gospel and convince many. The Sadducees and Pharisees realize their mistake, and shove him down the stairs, although he is not killed. People in the crowd therefore take a fuller’s brush and beat him to death. A final version of the story appears in the Psuedo-Clementine literature. There James is assaulted by an enemy and thrown down the stairs. The enemy, as it turns out, is Paul. In this literature Paul is an enemy of real Christianity, as represented by James. He is in fact often described in terms of Simon Magus.
Out of this data it is certain that James died in 62 at the hands of the Sanhedrin. What is remarkable is that he was accused of being in breach of the Law. While it is clear from the New Testament and James that he was clearly in favor of the Law, it is possible that his belief in Jesus as the Messiah and his occasional contact with Hellenistic Jews (like Paul) was interpreted as radical, given the volatile context of the mid-60′s, leading up to the Jewish War.